(Bad) Teacher of the Year

Bad Teacher, starring Cameron Diaz, is doing well at the box office. The black comedy is the “most scabrous portrayal of public education ever put to celluloid,” writes Sean Higgins in The American Spectator.

(Diaz’s character) doesn’t bother to teach the kids at all, regularly shows up to class hungover, solicits bribes from parents in exchange for good grades, embezzles money from school fundraisers and tells the one go-getter in her class to give up her dreams of becoming president in exchange for something more realistic, “like a masseuse.”

When I first started teaching, I thought that I was doing it for all the right reasons: Shorter hours, summers off, no accountability …” she explains.

Instead of teaching, she shows movies about inspirational teachers in class. Her job is safe — even when another teacher tells the principal she’s doing drugs on campus. He doesn’t want to tackle the union.

When she learns of a bonus for the teacher whose students earn the highest test scores, she tries to teach, but is lousy at it. So she tries to cheat on the test.

When her rival tries to expose her fraud, Halsey has her — a teacher who actually does inspire students — framed for drug possession and bounced out of the school. And that’s the happy ending.

I doubt viewers will see Bad Teacher as a documentary. It’s a take-off on Bad Santa‘s boozing, foul-mouthed safecracker, which nobody thought was telling the real truth about Santa Claus. Bad Santa is funny because we like to think of even department store Santas as jolly and kindly. Bad Teacher plays off the stereotype of the dedicated teacher. If that image didn’t exist, there’d be nothing funny about a kid-hating teacher.

About Joanne


  1. Richard Aubrey says:

    I don’t buy the Bad Santa analogy.
    Nobody’s met a bad Santa. Or, if they did, it was off the department store Santa’s clock when he was just a guy in a red suit.
    My daughter had a hungover math teacher and a couple of losers hung on suspiciously long and the principal’s reluctance to challenge the union may have been the reason. “He has to retire sometime,” the principal told me about the drunk. IIRC, it was three years.
    So Diaz is a compilation of a number of traits that we all have seen, or figured might be the case, or figured wouldn’t be too far out of line if they turned out to be true. Mercifully, I suppose, each bad apple has only had one bad characteristic. Putting them all into one teacher is why this is fiction. But it’s not analogous to a Bad Santa.

  2. tim-10-ber says:

    Sadly…there are teachers with some of Diaz’s characters faults in every district…

    James Patterson has a book out called Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life…I believe the book is for kids in the 12 and 13 year range. Personally, wish middle schools had never been invented…K-8 is so much better…

  3. “The principal’s reluctance to challenge the union” signifies a problem with the principal rather than the union.

  4. Richard Aubrey says:

    Right. Except that when he challenges the union, what happens? Among other things, he’s pilloried in the local press by leaks from the union. The system has to spend a great deal of money to press the thing if the union takes it to court or even hauls a shyster in for negotiations.
    So, the principal should be prepared to accept a great deal of personal abuse, generate expenses for the district, generate bad feeling among some of the staff, and, possibly, succeed. Or not. It may be a rational cost benefit analysis.
    Now, if the union said, we’ll do the legally-required minimum for our erring sister or brother, meanwhile suggesting seeking a more productive bag, it would be different. Problem is, to be elected in a union, you have to be more certifiably insane than your opponent. Darwiniannly, therefore, you have insanely combative union leaders who automatically see Diaz’ character as an innocent victim persecuted by the greedy bosses.
    I exaggerate. Sort of.

  5. Joanne left out this fascinating quote from Higgins’ review:

    “But the stench of failure emanating from the nation’s public school system has become impossible for even Hollywood liberals to ignore. Something has to explain why the schools are so rotten. ‘Bad Teacher’ suggests the problem may be the teachers themselves and the union-controlled system that protects them at the expense of the students.”

    Wow… the “stench of failure”, and “rotten schools”. Got hyperbole anyone?

    I love how Higgins implies that this movie is even remotely realistic about what a “bad teacher” is. Anyone who can’t see that this film is a giant satire, and is quite possibly ridiculing the “bad teacher” meme in the current reform movement itself, is lacking imagination.

    Once upon a time a so-called “bad teacher” may have been one who merely displayed the behaviors performed by Cameron Diaz. But, in the past and the present, a teacher such as Diaz’s would be fired in a New York minute, and to suggest otherwise is a figure of straw worthy of Burning Man and a raging insult to the vast majority of committed, conscientious teachers in this country.

    If only inebriation, debauchery, and weak morality were all there was to it. Ha! In the current politics of school reform, a bad teacher is one who can’t sacrifice enough of their life and soul in the effort to raise the test scores of the nation’s most vulnerable children. In the current politics, a bad teacher is one who despite heroic effort, hard work, and unforgiving evaluation procedures has students who, God forbid, remain below testing benchmarks and whose non-testable strengths are soundly ignored. In the current politics, a life-long dedicated teacher who happens to get a low VAM score is labeled “ineffective”, e.g.: bad, and dismissed from her job without regard to any of her other contributions or her commitment.

    Anyone, including Sean Higgins, who gives any credibility to this movie and then ties it to the authentic debates and issues concerning public education, is either ignorant, stupid, or both.

  6. Richard Aubrey says:

    Speaking of bad teachers and New York reminds me of the rubber room. At least they’re not with kids any longer.

  7. “despite heroic effort”? Where’s the part about scourging and being forced to carry your cross through the streets of Jerusalem? No crown of thorns?

    It’s a satire and like all satires, has to have a grain, or more, of truth in it.

    Sorry if that conflicts with your view of “teacher” as mythic figure but mommies and daddies have to deal with the reality of ill-educated kids for the rest of their lives. They don’t have the luxury of getting a new batch every year and forgetting last years unfortunates.

    I imagine folks like that don’t have a lot of patience for the sort of self-pity and self-absorption that places the professional pulling the paycheck at the center of the issue.

  8. Geeze Allen… you show no lack of hyperbole yourself.

    “…mommies and daddies have to deal with the reality of ill-educated kids for the rest of their lives, (and) don’t have a lot of patience for the sort of self-pity and self-absorption that places the professional pulling the paycheck at the center…”

    Got a little self-pity and self-absorption of your own? Any adult offspring still living at home?

    “It’s a satire and like all satires, has to have a grain, or more, of truth in it.”


    The grain of truth is that an entire reform movement is built upon an exaggerated myth of the “bad teacher”, with Cameron Diaz portraying the supreme being of said mythology.

    Believe it if you want… Whatever.

  9. You have to appreciate the irony of my hyperbole, Monica.

    I was satirizing your hyperbole you see. Your hyperbole provided the grain of truth without which there’s no satire. Neat, hey?

    And no, you snot, no adult offspring of my own still living at home.

    I do, however, have a couple of years volunteering to undo what the people pulling a paycheck did. Or rather failed to do. You ought to drop by an adult literacy center some time. Very enlightening if you’ve the capacity for enlightenment.

    It’s also a great place to understand what the reform movement’s built on. It’s the anger and disappointment of adults who now know how thoroughly they were cheated and are watching their children being cheated in exactly the same way. In some cases by the same people.

    That’s the reform movement. Go tell them a silly movie’s why they don’t simple adore the public education system.

  10. Allen:
    I admire you for volunteering in an adult literacy program. But do the anecdotal experiences of your students justify castigating an entire profession that encompasses millions of people? Perhaps not any more than the movie Bad Teacher represents the true issues of teacher quality, or the authentic debate of the reform movement.

    The adult literacy program I am familiar with provides students with one-to-one, intensive tutoring, something those students likely needed back in their earliest years in school. As soon as it’s known a child is struggling to read, that child should be provided with focused, intensive support, that carries on indefinitely. But that’s expensive, and more often children struggle in large classes and are given extra support in small doses by over-extended teachers (though I don’t expect you to sympathize with that). Districts are also limiting the numbers of students who are evaluated for formal resource services (special education), also due to what is sadly referred to as “encroachment” on general budgets.

    For more on that I recommend reading the book “Why Can’t u teach me 2 read?” by Beth Fertig. It’s a heart-wrenching tale of young adults struggling to become literate.

    But back to the subject at hand… Here at Joanne’s blog, about 5 people have commented on Higgins’ opinions regarding Bad Teacher. Likewise, there seems to be scarce political discussion in the general blogosphere as well (I’ve made more than a cursory search). Perhaps that indicates the movie in question is being taken exactly for what it is: a knuckleheaded satire beneath serious notice. As for me… I am done thinking about it.

    Happy 4th of July…

  11. Of course those anecdotal experiences justify castigating an entire profession, or more accurately an entire public education system as it is currently formulated, since those anecdotal experiences are a direct result of the failings of the public education system and are replicated everywhere volunteers do in weeks what the professionals don’t manage to do in years.

    As for the movie, like I’ve already written, the satire derives from a grain of truth, perhaps more then a grain of truth.

    Everyone’s had teachers who should have been fired. But the notion of a teacher being fired for incompetence or dereliction is the core of the satire since it contradicts the experience of most people who’ve been through the public education system.

  12. Your comments on this film are WAY off. Yes, it is a satire, but it is not a satire of the public school system; the movie is not that clever. It is a satire on unrealistic inspirational teacher movies and on life in general. How many of us expected to be great things when we grow up or for our children? How many of us dreamed about teaching and inspiring kids to do great things? And how many of us ACTUALLY grow-up and realize that the world is an unfair place and we just have to do what we can to get by? Yes, there are the exceptions to the rule, but for most of us and our children, are lives are not like “Mr. Holland’s Opus” or “Stand and Deliver.” Most teachers, lawyers, nurses, tellers, etc, are just regular people, trying to get through another day. THAT is the grain of the truth.